Referee Mark Geiger recalls incredible World Cup journey prior to MLS return
On Wednesday evening just outside Salt Lake City, the American whose World Cup lasted the longest finally will return to work.
The U.S. national team was knocked out of the tournament’s round of 16, which allowed some players to rejoin their clubs by July 4. But referee Mark Geiger stayed alive until the semifinals, becoming one of only 16 officials (not including alternates) given the honor of working one of the final four matches. His appearance as the fourth official at Germany’s epic 7-1 dismantling of Brazil was his fifth of the World Cup and along the way, he played a part in some of the competition’s most historic and surreal moments.
“It was just an amazing experience, to be there for so many memorable games,” said Geiger, who will run the middle Wednesday as Real Salt Lake hosts the New York Red Bulls.
The 39-year-old New Jersey native, now in his 11th season as a pro, refereed the Group C opener between Colombia and Greece in Belo Horizonte, where James Rodríguez introduced himself to the world.
“James was absolutely amazing, and to be on the field with him was spectacular,” Geiger said.
A second World Cup assignment isn’t guaranteed. But four days later, Geiger and his assistants, Mark Hurd and Joe Fletcher, were in charge of Chile’s stunning 2-0 win over Spain, which eliminated the reigning champs.
“The pressure we had going into that game was, I don’t want to say it was difficult to deal with, but we had to be extra careful that every decision we made was absolutely clear and correct. It was quite an experience,” Geiger recalled.
On June 24, he was the fourth official as Uruguay defeated Italy and Luis Suárez lost his mind.
“Unfortunately, no,” he said when asked if he saw Suárez feast on Giorgio Chiellini. “I’m scanning the field – there are a lot of players to be watching at that moment, and I see the two players fall to the ground. But I didn’t see the bite that happened right before … The ball was on the other side of the penalty area. I don’t think anyone [on the sideline] really saw it. There really was no reaction from the benches to indicate that something major had occurred.”
Then on June 30 in Brasilia, Geiger made history as the first American to referee a match in the knockout stage. There were 52 crews named to the preliminary list of World Cup officials back in 2011 and Geiger’s composed performances during the group stage helped ensure his was rated among the 14 best. The reward was the round-of-16 tilt between France and Nigeria in Brasilia.
“We were certainly excited to be given that opportunity,” Geiger said. And his World Cup wasn’t over. From the capital, it was on to Belo Horizonte and the "Mineirazo." Like the Uruguay-Italy game, Geiger would be working with the crew led by Mexico’s Marco Rodríguez.
“We were prepared for a very intense, very tight matchup,” Geiger said of the semifinal. “One of the things I was told as fourth official was that I was probably going to have one of the most difficult jobs on the field, because they were anticipating the benches to be very emotional, especially coming off the Colombia-Brazil game [in which Neymar was injured]. We thought the Brazil bench would be very, very emotional and we were prepared for a difficult, difficult match.”
Of course, no one at the Estádio Mineirão got what they expected.
“It was very strange, with the way [Brazil] walked out on the field and just their emotional level, you could feel it and it was different from the other matches they played,” Geiger said. “When Germany started dominating the game the way they did and putting in the goals, the benches actually were very calm. The crowd was not an issue, and the players, to Brazil’s credit, didn’t lash out against Germany. They finished the game.”
That lack of combustion or controversy, the Suárez incident aside, was a theme for Geiger throughout. He said he was prepared to make the big call if necessary, but thanks to sound game management and a bit of good fortune, he never had to. There were no penalty kicks and only seven yellow cards in the three games he refereed.
“First you want to keep it simple. You want to call the simple fouls and not let anything get away from you, and you want to communicate with the players. The more you communicate and try to prevent something from happening early on, then those big decisions don’t always have to come,” he said.
“For example, when the corner kicks happens there’s a lot of holding and grabbing in the penalty area. Instead of allowing the kick to happen and then maybe have to make a decision, you hold the kick. You talk with the players, calm them down, stop them from holding and then let them continue to play. Then you don’t have a potential penalty area decision to make.”
Interrupting a game in that fashion, in addition to calling more of the “simple fouls”, represents a subtle difference between officiating at the World Cup and in MLS, Geiger said.
“I may call a few more simple fouls in an international game then worry about promoting the game-flow model that they want in MLS,” he explained. “We had a tendency to call some trifling fouls [in MLS], the little ones where maybe the team still maintained possession or was still moving forward. They would like to see that play continue, although certainly not at the risk of losing control of the game or the players getting injured … There’s an entertainment factor that comes in a little bit more when you’re dealing with the domestic leagues.”
That sort of guidance is a big part of an official’s World Cup experience. The evaluation process lasts for nearly three years. For Geiger, a former high school math teacher who began reffing at age 13 – “My mother and father wanted me to have a job and it was just another way to make some bucks,” he said – that process included matches at the 2011 U-20 World Cup (including the final), the 2012 Olympics and the 2013 Club World Cup.
Once in Brazil, the officials trained daily at a facility in Rio de Janeiro and had frequent meetings with FIFA officials and instructors, during which they evaluated previous games and discussed the teams and players involved in future assignments. Referees would learn they were handling a game only a couple of days before. Then the cramming commenced. Among the FIFA officials who would help was Esse Baharmast, the Iranian-American referee who worked the inaugural MLS Cup final in 1996 and then the ’98 World Cup.
Baharmast was vilified during that tournament for a controversial penalty kick call against Brazil that later proved to be correct. Four years later, Brian Hall took charge of two games and worked as the fourth official in two more, including the Brazil-Turkey semifinal in Saitama. Geiger then ended a 12-year U.S. drought – with distinction, according to Hall. The veteran told reporters in Brazil that he thought Geiger and his crew did well enough to be “in line for the final,” which Hall said “really shows how far soccer has come in the United States.”
Geiger told SI.com that his nationality never was lost on him.
“It does translate to the referees,” he said. “If a team comes from a country that’s not really respected, then it’s very difficult to say that a referee also would be respected. We’re in the same boat. To come out and perform well, we were hoping to do that not only for ourselves but to hopefully get respect for Americans that come up after us.”
That extra bit of pressure, even if self-imposed, proved to be a benefit rather than a burden.
“I tend to perform better the more pressure there is," he said. "You’re focused a bit more when you know there’s that kind of scrutiny. But you also have to keep yourself calm and keep yourself from being overwhelmed. Remind yourself it’s just a game. We’ve done national team games before. But there certainly is something special about the World Cup.”
Geiger is young enough to work the 2018 tournament in Russia (FIFA mandates international retirement at 45), but he’s not hung up on the wait. Utah may seem a world away from Brazil, but Geiger said he was excited to get back to work.
“We do it because we enjoy the sport. It’s going to be great to be back on the field. We know these players. You’ve developed a relationship with a lot of the players and it’s going to be good to see these guys and be on the field with them,” he said. “Even though it’s not a World Cup semifinal, it’s a very important game for both teams, and we’re going to go give the effort the game deserves.”